Cameron warms to EU but is it too late?

| October 27, 2015 | 0 Comments

david-cameron_1939896cOpinion by Denis MacShane

Inch by inch or perhaps millimetre by millimetre the British establishment is coming to terms with the idea that Britain should remain in, not leave the European Union. Prime Minister David Cameron has been notably warmer about the advantages of being at the table where the world’s biggest trading block takes its decisons.

In March 2014, he set out seven demands he wanted the EU to make concessions on. In the Commons in October these had been reduced to just four.

Some like an opt-out in a future EU Treaty from the UK sharing the aspiration to “ever-closer union” are easy to pledge as future commitment which, in any event, a different UK government could overturn just as Tony Blair overturned the social Europe opt-out negotiated by John Major in 1992.

Cameron told MPs that the EU was in any event moving closer to UK priorities.

“There has been an 80% reduction in new legislative proposals under the new European Commission, and we have reached important agreements on a capital markets union, on             liberalising services, and on completing the digital single market. Last week the Commission published a new trade strategy that reflects the agenda that Britain has been championing for years, including vital trade deals with America, China and Japan.”

His third point was the need for some language on when non-British citizens could access the top up payments paid to very low pay employees –in effect a subsidy to low-pay employers. Legal experts are scratching their heads on how to make this work without discriminating against say an Irish, Polish or Spanish sandwich-filler doing exactly the same job alongside a British sandwich filler in the same firm.

But some language can almost certainly found  as indeed it will not be difficult for some statement underlining that non-Euro EU member states like Poland or Sweden as well as Britain will not face exclusion or discrimination from the eurozone if  euro-using countries do indeed move towards great integration and rule-making for euro users.

So Cameron has lowered the bar very considerably. Gone are demands that the UK has an opt-out from employment or trade union EU directives or that the House of Commons can veto any EU law it does not like.

Also disappeared is the demand that Britain controls its own frontiers by limiting or placing quotas on the right of 450 million EU citizens to travel to, and live and work in Britain.

All in all we are seeing a new pragmatic deal-ready David Cameron emerging.  The British establishment has won over the Prime Minister to its view that exiting Europe is a risk too far for the UK.

As Cameron was being positive about Europe in the Commons two of the pillars of the UK establishment, the Bank of England and the Confederation of British Industry came out with major statements supporting continued membership of the EU.

The qualifications that were usually attached to support for the EU have been quietly dropped. Will this quickening of formal state and big business endorsement help the IN campaign?              This is far from clear. In the same week as these pro-EU statements two opinions polls showed, if anything, a strengthening of pro-Brexit feelings. One showed a 50.6%-49.4% majority for IN.  In previous referendums on Europe held this century, the pro-EU majority was present in opinion polls in the months ahead of the actual vote but finished with a ‘No’ result.

So to have a lead of below 1 per cent should worry pro-Europeans. In another poll, support for Brexit had increased considerably since mid-summer. And for every IN statement there is an opposite call from the supporters of OUT. Sir Mike Rake, boss of the telecom giant BT wrote last Friday in the Financial Times ‘The biggest risk facing British business today is the possibility of leaving the EU’. But on the same day the Mayor of London, Boris JJohnson MP, wrote of his recent visit to Japan “No one seems worried about the UK’s EU referendum.” As usual Johnson, the main contendant to succeed David Cameron, was speaking his own version of truth as anyone who has spoken to Japanese diplomats, or business outfits like Jetro can testify but the would-be Tory leaders regularly insists Britain will flourish outside the EU and his statements get more publicity than the half-hearted pro-Europeanism of the CBI or Bank of England.

In the Commons, David Cameron, hailed the agreement with Paris that allow cross-Channel passport checks to take place in France in Calais which make the migrant problem there something for the French to police not the British. “We are very fortunate to have this excellent agreement with the French” hailing the deal the UK signed with Paris when I was Minister for Europe – possisbly the first kind words the Prime Minister has uttered on Tony Blair’s handling of Britain relationship with the EU.

Cameron found further words of praise for Europe’s role integrating former communist countries. ‘It has been a real success for the European Union that these countries are now committed to democracy and to economic freedoms,’ he told MPs.

For pro-Europeans, the Prime Minister’s adoption of some of their lines is welcome as is his dropping of most of his so-called renegotiation demands to a bare and deliverable minimum. But is it too late in the day? The money continue to flow to the Out or Leave camp with the hedge funds pouring money from Mayfair into the Brexit campaigns.

By contrast, listed CBI companies cannot give money to the In or REMAIN campaigns without calling special shareholders’ meeting which they will not do as they would be packed by Ukip and Out supporters who bought a share or two to attend.

Some observers dismiss this Mayfair enthusiasm for Brexit but in the City itself major asset management and investment firms like  Mercury Asset Management, Citi private bank, Killik and Co, Hambro  Capital Management and Artemis Investment Management are all supporter of the Brexit outfit, Business for Britain, created by Matthew Elliot, the skilled anti-EU campaigner who runs the main Leave or Out campaign.

Tim Tozer, the boss of Vauxhall until recently, has also said Britain can flourish outside the EU as has Jeff Immelt, chairman and CEO of GE who has said Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world mattered more than than its place in the EU.

For the past fifteen years business outfits like the CBI, the British Chamber of Commerce and the Institute of Directors have produced report after report criticizing the EU. Now they are changing their tone as they find virtue in the EU which they have refused to be find positive words about since the creation of the eurozone.

But for the first time, the establishment realises Brexit can and indeed may happen. There is a palpable sense of panic as the David Cameron uses warm words about Europe for the first time in his political life.

When will he come out and confront his own party and put effective pressure on all the Tory MPs who were selected for the 2001, 2005, 2010 and 2015 elections in the basis of proclaiming their Euroscepticism?  Will the Eurosceptic Boris Johnson or Teresa May break cover and decide to place themselves as the political head of a Brexit campaign on the assumption a Brexit vote takes place, Cameron has to resign and the Tory leadership and No 10 is there for the taking?              Finally when does Cameron tell the country that Tony Blair was right  that Britain’s place was in Europe and the last 20 years of Tory Euroscepticism have been a trip up the longest cul-de-sac in British political history?

Denis MacShane is the former UK Europe minister and author of Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe (IB Tauris).


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Category: A Frontpage, Brexit, Denis Macshane, EU, Opinion, UK

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